Elevator etiquette has its ups and downs

We are taught from childhood to be good even when no one is looking, and elevator deportment should not be exempted. We must play the game whether being squeezed against a backpack, peeping like Kilroy over a high shoulder, or riding alone for floor after floor after floor.

Elevatorship remains a work in progress for me even though I spent a long-gone summer running a small hotel's vintage Otis. No self-service buttons. There had to be an operator like me turning the handle on what I now believe to have been a rheostat. The trick was to make the car stop at a requested floor with as little trampoline effect as possible.

People talked to me more then, as I recall, than they do now when I am just another fellow traveler. Today at noon I got on at an upper floor with a crowd of security-tagged employees. "I bet everyone's going to the cafeteria," I said with a manufactured laugh, and there were a few manufactured smiles for the visitor.

But I wasn't sure I had done the right thing. Just about the only communication in elevators these days is between Alphonses and Gastons and sometimes Mignonettes on entering and exiting. Oh, maybe someone asks what floor you want when you're two or three passengers away from the buttons. Or thanks you for risking an arm to hold an automatic door.

Maybe I'm in the wrong elevators, but where is the old small talk about the game last night or the big story in the papers or even the weather? (Though New England's cold spell occasionally broke the ice.)

I've never had the confined-space experience evidently known to the City Council of Bend, Ore. It reportedly gave preliminary approval to an ordinance banning from city buses anyone who "emanates a grossly repulsive odor that is unavoidable by other Bend Extended Area Transit customers." But I can testify that a flowery cologne is unavoidable in a cubicle surrounded by elevator shaft. As is a hamburger with onions.

Men still take off their hats in elevators. This was a clue defining "custom" in a 2003 crossword puzzle.

Passengers still form ranks facing the door. When jostled face to face, they don't know whether to smile or inspect the ceiling. Eye contact is daring. But notice how people grin when the one poor soul getting off at Floor 3 has to samba through the maze of jeans, jackets, and shopping bags.

Maybe, like all those firms legally required to send us their privacy policies, elevator riders have a code, if only it could be deciphered. It might state:

• You don't give up your right to privacy when you enter my elevator.

• I honor your space and thank you for honoring mine.

• You're welcome to say something to me, but you don't have to.

• You and companion may continue your conversation for as many floors as you like, but I can't help listening.

• I don't mind whatever you're lugging, because I've been there before.

• In an empty elevator I behave as if there's a surveillance camera.

• It's OK when your little ones confuse my legs with yours and struggle over who's going to press the button.

• And wasn't it fun to get acquainted that time we were all stuck for five minutes between floors?

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